08 Mar 2023

How to plan an eco-friendly funeral

With environmental awareness on the rise, eco-friendly funerals may be an idea whose time has come. As traditional cremation produces CO2 emissions, and burials require land resources, what are the green funeral ideas out there? Here, we explore the different ways you can reduce the environmental impact of a burial or cremation.

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What is an eco-friendly funeral?

An eco-friendly funeral, or green funeral, is a way of honouring the departed in an environmentally responsible way. This might involve a natural burial, which avoids resource-intensive coffin production, uses non-toxic materials compared to traditional embalming, and takes place in restricted woodland areas where the natural habitat can be preserved. There are different approaches to an eco funeral, but the objective is almost always to reduce CO2 emissions and lessen the physical impact on the environment. Aside from the direct ecological benefits, eco-friendly burials are also a way to celebrate the life of those with a passion for the outdoors.

What is a green burial?

A green burial, also known as a natural burial or woodland burial, is a green funeral option that takes place in a natural burial ground or designated site within a cemetery. Generally, a green burial involves: 

  • A burial in restricted woodland areas where the natural habitat can be preserved. In contrast, a concrete vault could disrupt the surrounding habitat.
  • A biodegradable coffin or casket (such as wicker or recycled paper) which avoids resource-intensive coffin production.
  • The use of non-toxic materials and embalming fluids. 

What is the environmental impact of a funeral?

People often compare the financial cost of a burial versus cremation, but what about the environmental cost? Below, we examine whether a traditional burial is a greener alternative to cremation.  

The carbon cost of a cremation

The average cremation produces around 150 to 180kg of carbon, but the actual amount can vary according to a range of factors, including:

  • Whether a gas or electric cremator is used (electricity is greener)
  • The size and style of the coffin, which will determine the amount of fuel needed for the cremation
  • Similarly, the size and condition of the deceased’s body.  
Line graph showing the increase in the percentage of people cremated over time in the UK

The carbon cost of a burial  

Burials are arguably a greener funeral option than cremations as they generally produce less carbon. Nevertheless, there are still environmental consequences to consider if you’re thinking about a green burial. For example:

  • Digging a grave, and the space each burial requires, has a direct impact on the land and soil – if uncontrolled, it can cause contamination.
  • Embalming chemicals can produce small quantities of toxic pollution. 
    The use of headstones creates carbon in its production.
  • Moreover, even with a natural funeral, it’s worth remembering that woodland locations can often only be reached by car, so there may be an emissions impact from guests driving to a remote location. 

Are eco funerals cheaper?

A green funeral can often be cheaper than a traditional ceremony. While every funeral plan is different, with an eco funeral you can avoid some of the costs associated with non-eco funerals such as the cremation, wooden caskets and concrete vaults. Our guide to funeral costs has more information on how the ‘cost of dying’ is rising. 

Why chose an eco-friendly coffin?

Eco-friendly coffins can reduce the environmental impact of a burial. While wooden coffins are the traditional way to say goodbye to a loved one, if the material is non-biodegradable, it will take longer to decompose. Moreover, wooden caskets require the felling of trees; in fact, the likes of mahogany come from endangered rainforest trees.

Which coffins are eco-friendly?

Examples of eco-friendly coffins include:

  • Bamboo
  • Rattan
  • Cardboard
  • Willow
  • Wicker
  • Wool
  • Poplar
  • Recycled wood

Other types of eco-friendly funeral

Increasingly, there are new ways of making a funeral more eco-friendly, and some types of eco funeral which may become legal in the future.

  • Water cremation. New technology has made ‘water cremation’, sometimes known as resomation or aquamation, an emerging green alternative to traditional cremation. Water cremation uses a process called alkaline hydrolysis, where hot water and chemicals break down the deceased’s body in a steel chamber. The practice is legal in the UK, though it is not in widespread use.
  • Promession. This is where the body is positioned in a cryogenic freezing chamber, sprayed with liquid nitrogen, then disintegrated through mechanical vibrations until the body turns into powder. Promession is legal in the UK.
  • Composting. Human composting, or ‘terramation’, is not currently legal in the UK, but has been authorised in several US states in recent years. Human composting is where the body is gradually broken down into the soil over approximately 30 days, with far less emissions emitted into the atmosphere compared to a traditional cremation.  

Extra ideas for eco funerals

Finally, there are lots of small additions you can make to enhance a funeral’s green credentials:

  • A vegetarian wake. Animal agriculture contributes towards greenhouse gas emissions, so hosting a meat-free wake with vegetarian or vegan food could make a funeral more eco-friendly.
  • Biodegradable urns. These offer a more sustainable way to store ashes, and can even host a tree seed that will grow in the years to come.
  • Local florists. While floral arrangements look lovely, you can opt for locally grown, eco-friendly funeral flowers rather than those imported from afar.
  • Car sharing. Getting everyone to a funeral venue requires cars, trains and even planes, so sharing rides in a car is one way to reduce the environmental impact.

Of course, you may never erase your carbon footprint entirely when planning a green funeral, but by harnessing sustainable materials and new technologies, you can depart in a way that does justice to your love of the natural world. 

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